Thursday, June 18, 2015

Why Play a Smaller Size Instrument?

It is a cornerstone of Suzuki Method philosophy to teach a child with the "one point lesson" in mind.  In other words, information and technique adjustments should be given in small, able-to-master bits.  This is why sight reading is taught as a separate skill.  The task of understanding the value of a dot on a page is removed from the task of producing a sound.

It is with this idea in mind that Suzuki teachers tend to size a student down rather than up on instruments.  The teacher's goal is to give the student the tools to play fluently or, as Shinichi Suzuki used to always say, "with beautiful heart."  This does not happen if the student is struggling to support the instrument itself.

Fractional instrument size should imitate how the instrument is held by an adult with a full size instrument.  This means that wrists should not have to be hyperextended or torsos twisted into painful shapes in order to produce a sound. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015


I studied Music Therapy in college.  Upon completing my classwork, I ended up choosing not to pursue the two year internship that would have eventually led to me becoming a board certified music therapist.  I picked the private teacher route instead.

Even though I never ended up practicing music therapy in an official capacity, I never regretted my choice of studies in college.  Had I known then that I wanted to be a private music teacher I might have decided to take more of a music education route instead of therapy.  In retrospect, however, I feel that the therapy aspect prepared me more for the challenges of private teaching then anything else ever could have.

I think the biggest difference between the therapy approach versus standard music education is that in therapy you are assuming that your client is not a normal functioning individual and then working from there.  Whether it's cerebral palsy or autism or anger problems, the issues are seen as the primary concern and you use the music to address these issues.

After taking on my first batch of students, I quickly came to realization that just about everyone has issues.  Successfully teaching someone an instrument takes years and the lessons never revolve around a student perfectly recreating every technique adjustment you make.  They have issues, be it physical or mental.  The teacher may even have issues!

Issues and barriers are a natural part of learning.  That is why this must be the starting point for every lesson or practicing session.  What are the problems and how are they going to be fixed?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Intricate Plots

Something that's really cool about being a private music teacher is that you get to watch your students grow up.  It's something I started appreciate a few years ago when the cute little four-year-old suddenly walks into my studio and issues a sarcastic retort to my sarcastic statement.

Umm, since when did you become twelve?  I thought you were still four!

It's not that bad, actually.  But it really makes you reexamine your teaching strategy.  And something that seems to come up a lot is a need to readdress listening.  To be clear, I never stop telling students to listen to their pieces.  But many of them reach a point where they think they've outgrown it.  Listening was all well and good when they were in book ONE.  But now they are in book TWO and listening to a piece once should totally be sufficient, right?


If anything, listening should become more important the more advanced a student becomes.  Longer pieces are like reading more complex books.  Consider a beginner book such as Green Eggs and Ham.  There could be some underlying messages but the plot itself is usually very straight forward.  Reading through the book once or twice would allow most people to be able to verbally explain the plot with some accuracy.  The plot is simple and straightforward with a minimal cast of characters.

Now compare this to a book like Pride and Prejudice.  There's just more going on in that book.  The cast of characters is considerably larger and there is a host of subplots.  Not only does it take longer to get from beginning to end but it would also take at least a few read-throughs to sort out all the subplots you may have missed the first time.  Being able to accurately explain the plot to someone would take considerably more effort.

The same is true for music.  More complexity means more effort must go into the details.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Why Start Children on Music at a Young Age?

The ideal age to start children on music is something hotly debated across several fields of study.  Neuroscientists research brain development before and after musical education...teachers study a student's attention span after music exposure...math experts wonder if music students are able to understand fractions more quickly... the list seems endless.

I'm going to take a slightly different approach to this topic.  I wanted to talk about longevity.

Honestly, I feel that that the best reason to start a child on music at a young age is so the child can start forming the habit of music.  Playing an instrument is complicated. Any number of hurdles will hold back a musician's progress.  And the sad fact is that even if a child starts young only a small percentage of children ever "make it" (I mean this in the loosest of terms: mastering the instrument enough to have a degree of fluency).

Music is a lifestyle.  In order to be truly successful at learning an instrument, music has to be a part of a person's life.  Going to concerts, listening to music, associating with other musicians, performing... all of this has to become a part of who a person is.  It has to be.  Otherwise, what incentive is there to torture yourself with scales?

The older we get the more fixed our habits become.  Of all the possible pastimes a person can pick up, learning a musical instrument has to be one of the least accessible.  Besides all the time, money and lack of immediate gratification, it's just flat out hard!

Which is why learning an instrument at a young age gives someone such an advantage.  If that immersion into the musical lifestyle happens early on, the musician doesn't question why he decided to take up an instrument.  The instrument simply becomes a part of who that person is.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Venturing into Viola

I am a violist at heart.  It's a sort of cruel irony that violinists usually switch to viola to avoid the higher sounds but then you have to primarily teach those higher sounds to students until some of them decide to join your viola ways.

Besides just being a less commonly heard of instrument, the reason why violists are fewer in number is a physics problem.  The C string (the lowest string on the viola) is much thicker than the G.  In order to vibrate and make a sound the string must be a certain length.

This posses no problem on tiny cellos because even the smallest cello is about the size of a full-size violin.  However, the fractional violins are much smaller than that.  The shortest viola strings manufactured fit on a 12 inch viola (or a 1/2 size violin).  So the student starting the viola needs to be physically big enough in order to make the attempt.

In a nutshell: it takes awhile before a teacher can start to acquire some viola students.  You either have to wait for students that already have an interest in the instrument to find you, which is rare.  Or you have to way for your little ones to become both big enough and advanced enough to handle the switch from violin to viola.

After 6 1/2 years of teaching I have finally reached that point where I have a small batch of viola students going.  It's so refreshing!  Don't get me wrong, I love all my violin students.  It's just nice having a chance to explore and pass on knowledge for what I consider to be "my" instrument.  It's also fun trying to really figure out the subtle differences between the two instruments.  Things that, as a student, I figured out along the way but never really gave much thought to.  It makes me a better all around musician.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

When Seven Steps Become One

John Kendall was a cornerstone in the early days of the Suzuki Method. You can read more about him on Wikipedia but, in a nutshell, he is credited for helping bring the approach over to the U.S.A. In addition he was a violin teacher of more than fifty years.

Something that always stuck with me when hearing about stories of his teaching was his "seven steps" approach. The concept boils down to the idea that your short term memory is capable of retaining, on average, seven items.   The short term memory is fast but not powerful.  There is a limit to how many items each person can remember in his/her short term along with a limit to the duration the short term memory retains this information.

Obviously the goal is to make those short term memory items make the switch to long term memory. But in order for this to happen the items must be reinforced and repeated.  This means the exact action needs to reoccur multiple times.

This is extremely important to understand when working with beginning music students.

Consider the bow hold for a violin or viola.  If a student is unfamiliar with a bow hold, the following things must be in place in order to successfully produce a sound:

-Relaxed arm and soft hand
-Curved thumb on "the silver part"
-Index finger wrapped around the stick, slightly away from the middle two fingers
-Middle two fingers hanging over the stick
-Pinky finger curved and on top of the stick
-Wrist straight
-Fingers rounded and not crushing the frog

With just the holding of the bow--and that's not even factoring in making a sound--that is easily seven items the student must be working on.  If any one of those items is causing the student difficulty, then it must be broken down in to further steps.

Which means that in order for a student to remember how to do a bow hold correctly, each of those seven steps must be repeated until all seven make the transition into long term memory and become "one step."  With each individual part that comprising a bow hold mastered, the process transforms from the steps of a bow hold to just a plain and simple bow hold.  

It is at this moment that the bow hold becomes one step and the student is now prepared for six more.